Small news, big stories
Nothing ever happens in August, right?
AUGUST in western Europe is quiet almost by official decree. In the eastern part of the continent people still work a bit harder, but the drip of drivel from second-rate politicians who should be off at the beach means that summer can feel stupefying. It is time to drink kvass (fermented breadcrumbs), to eat chilled cherry soup or iced yoghurt, to swim in lakes and forget about politics.
But the summer is also a time when interesting news items pop up that are pointers to bigger stories around the corner. Here are three.
A Ukrainian TV channel reports that 50,000 people in the western region of Chernovtsy now hold Romanian passports. Northern Bukovina, as it used to be known, was part of Romania before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 (another bit of August news that proved more important than it seemed at the time). This added a slice of Romanian territory to the Soviet Union. Most is the area now called Moldova. But fragments to the north and south went to Soviet Ukraine.
Moldovans are entitled to Romanian passports if they can prove a family connection to pre-war Romania. Since Romania joined the EU, many have applied. That delights Romanian nationalists, and infuriates most Moldovan politicians who think that their bigger neighbour wants to swallow them up.
But this is the first sign that the same process is happening in the bit of Romanian territory now in Ukraine—a region that Soviet repressions seemed to have scrubbed bare of any trace of Romanian national feeling. A century ago, Czernowitz, as it used to be known, was a stellar example of Austro-Hungarian multi-ethnicity. Those traditions are hard to kill. Ukrainian politicians may fret about their people holding second passports illegally, but they should bear in mind that the longer their country’s political paralysis continues, the more its artificial Soviet-era borders may come under scrutiny.
Russia’s ability to shoot itself in the foot remains both spectacular and entertaining
The second item is about GUAM, an American-backed talking shop that links Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Supposedly a rival to the clutch of Kremlin-led organisations in the former Soviet Union, and also a waiting room for NATO, GUAM is almost moribund. Although Georgia is a gung-ho backer, other members are lukewarm or even chilly. Grand plans to include Romania and the Baltic states have stalled.
This week pro-Kremlin opposition parties in all four member states said they were stepping up their campaign against the organisation’s vestigial security role—chiefly its tentative proposal to establish a joint peacekeeping force. GUAM should regard that as rather flattering: it may be that their ramshackle organisation now attracts more interest from its bashers in Moscow than from its backers in Washington, DC.
That is an impressive sign of the Kremlin’s attention to detail in its own backyard. But as the third news item illustrates, Russia’s ability to shoot itself in the foot remains both spectacular and entertaining. To illustrate the daring descent to the Arctic seabed last week, Rossiya TV, one of the many docile pro-Kremlin channels, carried what seemed to be authentic footage of miniature submarines in the sea depths. But a 13-year-old boy in Finland noticed an uncanny resemblance between stills of the footage reprinted in a newspaper and scenes from a DVD in his collection: “Titanic”. Only days earlier, another Russian TV news programme had faked a picture of the London Times, making out that a rare pro-Russian comment piece was not buried inside the paper, but splashed on the front. Ascribing demonic genius to the Kremlin’s spin doctors and geopoliticians is tempting. But only when they deal with their own side’s incompetence will they be really scary.